Talking Tatts and the Allure of Ink

Carrie Davenport and Paul Kane curate a multimedia exhibition at The MAC exploring our love for tattoos

Talking Tatts: An Exhibition of the Inked Music Industry, runs in The MAC until October 12. How did the idea come about?

Paul: I’ve worked professionally with Carrie for a number of years and we both share a love of tatts. Through a brief chat I told her about the idea and she loved it. We had a clear vision – portraits, then a video with a voiceover of each person.

Carrie: We see so many people in the music industry who have tattoos and you rarely get the chance to ask about the story behind them, so it was a brilliant opportunity to get a glimpse at the stories behind the ink.

What has your role been in putting together the exhibition?

Carrie: Paul took charge of the audio interviews and I covered the photography and video element. We designed them to work with each other, with each part being equal in importance, showcasing the tattoo, the tattoo collector and the stories behind both. Having that in writing seemed to take away from it. It's much better to hear people's stories in their own way with their own voice, so we decided to use recorded interviews. It adds a little more personality to it. 

What is the appeal of tattoos among musicians and music fans?

Paul: Like asking why biker jackets are still important, or a low slung Les Paul, it's part of a subculture. It’s a means of expression, which can be totally individual but more importantly it’s a rite of passage. It can mean expressing loyalty to fellow musicians if you are in a band, or as a fan it can show how much you care. Tatts can include logos, lyrics or portraits.

Traditionally, tattoos are mainly associated with rock and metal music. Is that changing? 

Carrie: I think tattoos have become so popular nowadays that they aren't confined to any genre or walk of life. Amy Winehouse was famous for being tattooed. Cheryl Cole is known for having a huge tattoo as well as several smaller ones. Lots of fans copy their favourite musicians' tattoos or get lyrics or band logos. Some genres attract it more and you'll definitely see more punk singers than classical musicians with tattoos, but it's not reserved for the rockers anymore. 

Have tattoos lost some of their sense of nonconformity and danger as a consequence?

Carrie: I come from a family that has always embraced body art. Both my parents are tattooed and so are many of my friends, but then I have an equal amount of friends who have no tattoos at all. It was never about any sort of danger for me, though – getting a tattoo wasn't rebelling.

I think maybe in the past tattoos were seen as the domain of prisoners, sailors and gang members but looking back further to the roots of tattooing, it's an artwork which has been practised for centuries for many reasons. There is no real shock factor left in big tattoos, but then there's not much shock factor left in anything nowadays.

How many tattoos do you have and which is your favourite?

I currently have nine, ranging from tiny designs I got done in my teens to a back piece I got done at the London tattoo convention last weekend (see main image). It was a total chance discovery that I saw in a guy's book of art available. My favourite is my calf piece, which is my dog Deefor in the style of a Day of the Dead skull by my good friend Karen Hogg who tattoos as Zombiebunny Ink.

Paul: I have six and my favourite is my next one! Each marks out for me a period in my life, as they span 20 years. I have plans for a new one fairly soon, which was thought of on a recent trip to India with my son.


It's often said that tattoos are addictive. Why do you think that is the case?  

Carrie: The first time you're nervous and you think about it for ages. The second time it's less nerves more excitement, and then every time since it's the anticipation of getting something new. It's exciting. Like anyone who collects anything, you can't wait to add to your collection. The anticipation is maybe more addictive than the tattooing process.

Let's be honest, it's not being licked on by kittens. It hurts, but it's a strange pain as you know you'll have something forever to show for a few hours of discomfort. Some places are worse than others and some artists definitely have more painful styles of working. But when you see the final piece healed and how great it is, you can't wait to get back.

Paul: I don't think addictive is the right term. After the first one I was just inspired to say something more about myself and my life through ink, but that took quite a few years. There is a strong sense of self expression, rebellion, wanting to literally mark out a period in your life that you want to inspire yourself. It's more of a journey.

Does anyone feature in the exhibition who you think might surprise us?

Carrie: I don't think the people will be a surprise but the stories ought to be. Some are happy, some are sad and all are incredibly personal. It was an honour to hear them all and I think the surprises lie in that part of the show.

Carrie, as a music photographer, of all the acts you've shot in your career, who has the best tatts?

Carrie: I love tattoos but they don't suit everyone and they aren't everybody's cup of tea. When you're shooting live acts, it's just something on stage, but in portraits you make the most of them like you would any other interesting feature. I've shot so many tattooed bands it's a struggle to pick a favourite, but I love when band members have a matching tattoo, like And So I Watch You From Afar [who all have tattoos of their triangle logo]. It's a real bond.

Tattoos seem to be more popular than ever. Do you think this will last, or is it a short-term spike in popularity?

Paul: Tatts have been used by indigenous groups like the Maori for millennia. Like anything they will be cyclical. They will change and evolve. Already there are many who have fluorescent designs, which glow under UV and ‘come alive’ in clubs. They will be with us for a long time.

Talking Tatts: An Exhibition of the Inked Music Industry runs in The MAC, Belfast until October 12 as part of the MADE festival created by young people, for young people.